For two weeks the media has been buzzing about the news that Emperor Akihito will abdicate before 2019.
Initially, it was reported that he’d step down on Dec. 31, 2018, and his son, Crown Prince Naruhito, would become the new Emperor the next day. Every media outlet seemed to accept this information despite the fact that no official announcement was made. When queried during one of his regular news conferences, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga expressed irritation while claiming that he knew nothing about any such report. The Imperial Household Agency was more specific in its articulation of annoyance, stating that such a scenario would be “difficult” owing to private Shinto rituals that the Imperial family conducts on New Year’s Day.
The abdication report was a scoop by the Sankei Shimbun. The article appeared in the newspaper’s Jan. 10 morning edition, with all other media rehashing it by the next day. According to the Sankei’s anonymous sources, the main reason for the dates chosen is that having a new emperor ascend to the throne on New Year’s Day would cause the least amount of inconvenience to the public, since a new Imperial era would start on Jan. 1, thus allowing government offices, businesses and citizens to prepare for a new gengō (era name) that dovetailed perfectly with a new calendar year.
Now, it appears the Emperor may abdicate on Dec. 23, 2018, his 85th birthday, and his son would ascend the throne on Dec. 24, a situation that could cause problems since the following seven days would comprise the first year of the new era, thus potentially messing up calendars, official documents and computer programs. Reports indicate that the government still hopes that even if abdication takes place on Dec. 23, it can postpone the start of the new era until Jan. 1, but that might require some legal hocus pocus. The Diet has yet to pass the special law to allow the current Emperor — and only the current Emperor — to abdicate, so they could possibly approve the era postponement at the same time.
For all the attention the story has attracted, no media outlet has taken the opportunity to question the gengō system and its relevance in the 21st century — or any century, for that matter. The illogical nature of the system was built into the headline of the original Sankei story, which said that the new era would commence on the first day of “Heisei 31.” If, under the original scenario, the Crown Prince were to become emperor on Jan. 1, the Heisei Era, which designates the reign of his father, would cease to exist on that day, meaning Heisei 31 is an impossibility.
The Sankei could have avoided this semantic quandary by simply writing “2019,” but being one of those media that steadfastly adheres to everything that counts as “traditionally Japanese,” the paper can’t bring itself to use a designation derived from an outside culture — or, at least, not in something as momentous as a headline. In the body of the accompanying article “2019” is written in parentheses right after “Heisei 31,” just in case some readers were confused.
And “confusion” is the operative word here. The Sankei isn’t the only media that religiously sticks to gengō in its denotation of dates. NHK is even worse. I once saw an NHK news report that said the maglev express train currently under construction would probably not be paid off until Heisei 84, another year that only exists in “The Twilight Zone” unless some method is found to cryogenically preserve the current Emperor. The reason they use such a designation is because the start and the name of the next era can’t be known until the current Emperor dies or steps down, so it’s more convenient to project the Heisei Era into the future as a reference.
Well, no. It’s more convenient to use the Gregorian calendar, the “most widely used civil calendar” in the world, according to Wikipedia, and one that is widely used in Japan as well. What makes gengō especially troublesome is its application to relative time. As long as a date falls within the current Imperial era, there’s no problem, but when it doesn’t, you need a calculator and an encyclopedia to figure out the proper designation, and the more eras that fall between now and whatever past event you’re referencing, the more difficult it is. Before the Meiji Era (1868-1912), it becomes impossible, since gengō didn’t often correspond to Imperial reigns. Many were reboots that occurred during a particular reign for arbitrary reasons, such as reversing bad luck following a natural disaster. One era lasted a single day. There have been 247 gengō since the system started in 646 A.D.
Takao Yamada wrote an apologia for gengō in the Mainichi Shimbun last week. Opening with the syntactically challenging assertion that “there is no one who says that a new gengō is not necessary,” he nevertheless goes on to explain why some people object to it, namely, that it is “irrational, undemocratic and unusable in international society.” However, gengō must be maintained because it is “rooted in Japanese society” and, to Yamada, “we can’t live without it.” He relates its history and cites a scholar who believes that abolishing gengō “will lead to an interruption of history and tradition as well as a collapse of culture.” As an illustration, the scholar mentions how people no longer use the unit “go” to measure a volume of sake, as if were a soul-killing development.
The Asahi Shimbun offered a more practical discussion of the matter on Jan. 14. Dozens of hired experts, the paper said, will have to pore over official records to make sure proposed gengō for the new era weren’t used before and that they don’t mimic place or personal names. On the other hand, printing companies will make a great deal of money churning out revised documents. In essence, the common media wisdom is that gengō is vital to the Japanese identity and creates a lot of unnecessary work. That sounds about right.